My first experience with authentic Caribbean jerk chicken was in Jamaica on my honeymoon some years ago. The taste still lingers on, and I’ve had nothing like it since. That is, until just a few weeks ago.
Roxanne, Lauren, her friend Regan, and I traveled to the Turks and Caicos islands recently. Staying in a house on the beach in Providenciales, we had the best of both worlds. My wife and daughter are obsessive about the crystal clear Caribbean water, baby powder-like white sand and baking in the sun all day long. I, on the other hand, can only take it in small doses and would rather be baking a whole snapper in the fully equipped kitchen in our beach house.
For me, travel is a journey of enlightenment about the people and culture of a place with emphasis on how food plays a role in everyday life. The Turks draw influence from the ancient Arawak Indian culture indigenous to this part of the Caribbean as well as the African slave influence.
Much like South Louisiana, the traditions of African cooking in the Turks have led to spicy Creole recipes that pepper the culture with vibrant and colorful flavors. Rice and peas, curried goat, escoveitch, grilled fish and conch chowder are just a few of the dishes I sampled at the Thursday night Fish Fry at Bight Park along Grace Bay.
The good folks from Miss Moonie’s kitchen introduced me to their version of Jerk Chicken as well as a most interesting take on grits. The dish – peas and grits – was cooked down with salt pork, ham stock, a touch of tomato paste and a bit of Kitchen Bouquet to achieve a rich, mahogany brown color. And the jerk chicken was cooked over an open fire by Miss Moonie’s head cook decked out in chef’s whites and toque.
Beverly Lewis and Tria run the operation out of a small general store on the Leeward Highway and are known far and wide for delicious local food cooked simply and served lovingly to locals and tourists alike. Their recipes are closely guarded, but I may have gotten just enough inside info to recreate the jerk marinade as well as the grits.
For the jerk marinade, Scotch bonnets are the fiery-hot pepper of choice in the islands, but I plan to tame it down a bit with jalapenos spiked with some adobo chiles. In addition, for this Cajun/Creole meets Caribbean version, I plan to cook my chicken whole; spatchcocked and pressed down with a foil-wrapped brick, a technique I learned years ago. Cooking chicken, or meats of any kind, close to the bone retains moisture and imparts a depth of flavor that you can never get with a boneless filet.
Rest assured my down home Louisiana version of jerk chicken will never come close to the authenticity of the hands of a Caribbean cook with the backdrop of palm trees and the crystal clear waters of Grace Bay, but it just may be the next best thing.
- 1 ripe papaya, seeded with pulp removed and diced
- 1 ripe mango, seeded with pulp removed and diced
- ½ cup diced fresh pineapple
- ½ cup finely diced cucumber
- ½ cup finely diced red onion
- ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 jalapeno, seeds removed and finely diced
- 4 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- ½ cup finely diced white onion
- ½ cup diced tasso or smoked ham
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup coarse stone-ground white grits
- 1 cup cooked black-eyed peas
- ½ cup flavoring and browning sauce, such as Savoie's or Kitchen Bouquet, as needed
- Kosher salt and white pepper
- 1 cup half and half
- 2 tablespoons all spice
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon celery salt
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 2 jalapeno peppers, stems removed or Scotch Bonnets
- 2 adobo chile peppers with 2 tablespoons of sauce from the can
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons sugarcane molasses
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1 tablespoon ground jalapeno powder
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- ¼ cup vinegar-based barbecue sauce
- 1 teaspoon annotto coloring and seasoning powder, such as Bijol
- ½ cup orange juice
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 whole spatchcocked chickens, neck and giblets removed
- In a large glass mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients and season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir together, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.
- In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter and add the onions and tasso. Saute until the onions are translucent. Add the stock, bring to a boil and add the grits. Stir the pot until it comes back to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer and cover. Stir frequently until all the stock is absorbed and the grits are done, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the cooked peas and move the pot off the burner.
- With a spoon, add a little of the browning sauce and stir. Continue adding a little of the darkening liquid until you achieve a perfect mahogany brown color. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot until serving time.
- When you are ready to serve the grits, move the pot back to a low burner and reheat. By this time, the grits may have stiffened up. To regain a creamy (not runny) consistency add a little bit of the half and half as it heats through. Once hot and creamy, remove from the heat and cover the pot.
- In the container of a blender, place all the marinade ingredients and puree on high until smooth. Reserve ½ cup of the marinade for a sauce to serve on the side.
- Place each chicken in a large plastic freezer bag and pour the marinade into the bags. Close the two bags tightly and press each bag with your hand until both of the chickens are evenly coated with the marinade. Place in the refrigerator and marinate for a minimum of 3 hours or overnight.
- Before cooking, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature. Light the hardwood charcoal of an open barbecue pit and let the coals burn down to a medium-high heat. Spread the coals evenly so that the temperature is consistent across the grill.
- Remove the chicken from the bags and place skin-side down on the grill. To press it down against the grill grates, place a heavy cast-iron skillet or pot on top of each whole chicken. Cook the chickens without turning for 30 minutes. Have a spray bottle of water on hand to prevent flare ups. Your goal is to maintain a consistent temperature to cook the chicken through without burning. After 30 minutes on one side, turn and cook for 15 minutes on the other side.
- The key is to cook the chicken just until the thickest part, usually the thigh, is done. To check for doneness insert your instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken (without touching the bone) and see if it registers at least 165ºF. If done, remove to a platter, cover and keep warm.
- Cut the chickens into quarters and serve with the tropical salsa along with the peas and grits. This dish is perfect paired with my favorite, ice-cold Turks Head beer.
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